April 29, 2019 - Lawrenceville - Tiffany Moss listens as assistant district attorney Lisa Jones makes final arguments for the prosecution as the Tiffany Moss murder trial went to the jury. Moss, who is representing herself, is accused of intentionally starving her 10-year-old stepdaughter Emani to death in the fall of 2013. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Jury at impasse over death sentence for Gwinnett woman in starving death

It will likely go down as one of the least-surprising verdicts in the history of Georgia jurisprudence. 

After deliberating just short of three hours, a Gwinnett County jury on Monday found Tiffany Moss guilty of murdering her stepdaughter Emani, starving the 10-year-old and then trying to burn her emaciated body. Moss, who took the unusual step of representing herself in a capital case, mounted no defense. She didn’t ask a single question of the witnesses who testified against her and offered no opening statement or closing argument. Upon hearing the guilty verdicts — for murder, felony murder, cruelty to children and trying to conceal death — Moss showed no emotion. 

But the jury of six men and six women appear conflicted over whether Moss, 36, should be sentenced to die. At day’s end, they sent Superior Court Judge George Hutchinson a note saying they were at an impasse and wanted to go home “and sleep on it.” He granted the request and they will return Tuesday morning to continue deliberating. 

In asking for a death sentence, Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter described in harrowing detail how how the body shuts down when denied food.  

“Who in the world conceives of or executes a plan to starve a 10-year-old to death?” he asked. ” … There are some crimes that are so horrible, so heinous, the only balance you can pay is with your life. Justice demands the proper payment.”

Assistant district attorney Lisa Jones holds a photo of Emani Moss as she delivers final arguments for the prosecution during the Tiffany Moss murder trial on April 29, 2019.
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

It likely took weeks for Emani to die of starvation, Porter said. This meant Moss woke up every morning deciding, “I’m going to kill that baby (and) she did it without a second thought.” 

Moss does not deserve a sentence of life with parole because she’s not going to change, Porter said. “She’s shown you too much of her capacity for cruelty. There will always be that dark side waiting to come out.” 

Some may think life without parole is worse than a death sentence because they’ll think a killer will think about what he or she did every day for the rest of their life, Porter said. 

Not Moss, he insisted. “She’s never going to think about that child again.”  

Hutchinson told Moss she could address the jury, present mitigating evidence, even have her relatives who’ve attended the trial testify on her behalf. He also asked Moss if there was anything he could do to help her in the sentencing phase. 

Moss declined all offers, and when Porter finished his closing, Moss once again passed up the opportunity to address the jury.

» PHOTOSTiffany Moss murder trial, April 29, 2019

Tiffany Moss looked straight ahead and showed little reaction as the verdict was announced during her murder trial on April 29, 2019. She was found guilty on all counts.
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Earlier Monday, Assistant District Attorney Lisa Jones said Emani’s tortured life began three years before her death in the fall of 2013. That’s when Tiffany Moss lashed the then six-year-old child with a belt for not doing her homework. 

After a teacher saw Emani’s bruises, Moss was charged with child cruelty. She pleaded guilty, was placed on probation and lost her job.  

After that, Moss despised Emani because of what happened, Jones said. “She wasn’t a child to her. She was a nuisance and she was a pain.” 

Over the next few years, when the Moss family lived with relatives, Emani thrived because there were others keeping an eye on her. But when the family lived on its own, Emani suffered at Moss’s hands, Jones said.

A crowded gallery that includes family members and Emani Moss's fourth grade teacher listen to final arguments from the prosecution during the Tiffany Moss murder trial on April 29, 2019.
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

In mid-2013, the family moved into a three-bedroom apartment in the Lawrenceville area. By now, Moss had two children of her own with Emani’s father, Eman Moss. And the couple decided to home school Emani. 

“That was the beginning of the end for Emani,” Jones said. “… Home schooling was code words for isolate and hide. She will not have a teacher who can save her and protect her.”  

Emani pretty much disappeared from view after that, kept inside her bedroom which Jones described as “her own personal prison.” 

The prosecutor recounted testimony by a medical examiner who described how Emani wasted away with no food or drink, living in filth and waste in her own bed because she’d become too weak to move. She was just 32 pounds when she died.  

Then Jones reminded jurors of messages Moss had sent her husband during this time while he was at work. On at least two occasions, she texted him photos of dishes she’d prepared that day.

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On another occasion, “Sexy Wifey,” Moss’s contact name on her husband’s phone, told Eman Moss she had a craving for chocolate and asked him to pick up some cookie dough on the way home. To this, Jones asked jurors to imagine what it must have been like for Emani to have smell of the cookies wafting through the apartment as she was starving to death.  

“Emani lived with the evils in this world,” Jones said, looking at Tiffany Moss at the defense table. “The evils in the world and in her life lived in the next room.” 

To Moss, Emani “was disposable,” Jones said. “She was trash.”  

But Emani was a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend and a friendly girl with an easy smile who brought happiness to her teachers, Jones said. 

“She was Emani and she mattered,” said an impassioned Jones, holding up a photo of the smiling young girl to the jury. “She mattered.”  

Also Friday, Hutchinson held a brief hearing to consider a motion filed last week by state capital defenders seeking to represent Moss in the sentencing phase of her trial.

District attorney Danny Porter listens as assistant district attorney Lisa Jones makes final arguments during the Tiffany Moss murder trial on April 29, 2019.
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Capital defender Brad Gardner told Hutchinson that because Moss has done nothing in her defense during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial, there was no reason to believe she would change her strategy during sentencing. 

Gardner and defender Emily Gilbert were appointed “standby counsel” and have been sitting in the gallery behind Moss, who has occasionally sought their advice. In prior court filings, the defenders have said Moss suffers from brain damage.  

Hutchinson questioned whether he had the authority to grant such a request. “You’re asking me to impose representation on someone who doesn’t want it,” Hutchinson told Gardner. 

Porter objected to the defenders’ motion.  

“We can’t interfere with this in the absence of her request for counsel,” Porter said. “It’s not their case. It’s her case. It’s her decision.” 

Before ruling, Hutchinson asked Moss if she continued to want to represent herself.  

“I do,” Moss said. 

The judge then denied the defenders’ motion.

Emani Moss, 10, was starved to death. Her parents were arrested and charged with murder, concealing a body, and child cruelty after police say they had starved her to death then set her body on fire to cover up the crime.
Photo: AJC file photo

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